"Ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere."
That's a fairly obvious, even mundane, description of America in the early 21st century. But it happened to be written in 1846 in Denmark by Soren Kierkegaard, the famously cryptic existentialist philosopher and theologian.
In "The Present Age," an unusually accessible essay that contains those still-telling words, Kierkegaard, in small part, was writing about how something we now might call "mass media" contributed to making society passionless, "leveled," and superficial — one in which honest faith, authenticity and self-direction were nearly unattainable.
Modern man, Kierkegaard theorized, was making the world vague, vacuous and homogenized. "In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first necessary to procure a phantom … a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage — and that phantom is the public… such a phantom can develop itself with the help of the Press."
The Press. Kierkegaard's "The Present Age" was a very early but still very modern theory that the press, "advertisement and publicity" — the media — were seriously screwing up the world and making life less meaningful. Media criticism, 160 years later, is now a professional vocation and a dinner party staple.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself revisiting "The Present Age," after reading criticism of a column I wrote called
The column was an extended whine about how so much of what we consider our "public life" — politics, news, entertainment, commerce — is phony and inauthentic; public figures come off as insincere or hypocritical, public institutions and enterprises as contrived or intentionally misleading. And yet we put up with it all.
The complaint I was repeatedly nailed with was that I was too soft on the media, which many readers — like Kierkegaard — pointed to as a leading cause of earthly phoniness.
Indeed, many readers felt it was comical and absurd that a pompous ass like me would try to write about something weighty like authenticity on a medium as ephemeral and superficial as CBSNews.com. This comment was more typical: "If only news would hold on to values and not making a buck … maybe then we could see a real good genuine American culture."
Perhaps. I think it's a tad trickier than that. But I also agree with the obvious: "The media" as a whole is a bad actor in all our land's fakery, no matter how hard many of its practitioners try to do good work.
The reaction to my column also inspired me to look back to a book written 115 years after Kierkegaard, and 45 years before the age in which O.J. Simpson scored his $3 million "If I Did It" book deal and Britney Spears got the headlines she apparently sought by repeatedly flashing paparazzi who eagerly snapped and disseminated photos of her genitals.
That book is "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America" by Daniel Boorstin. It is eloquent and brilliant, yet it almost seems quaint now. "The Image," you might say, has been super-sized.
Boorstin's book is about a "national self-hypnosis," his characterization of "our arts of self-deception, how we hide reality from ourselves." He wrote: "I describe the world of our making, how we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life."
Our news and stories, he argued, are about "pseudo-events" — and in our own lives, we have "pseudo-experiences." The media, he felt, bears a large measure of blame.
I am, quite obviously, both a purveyor and consumer of "the media." And almost every day, I also have to read and listen to what members of "the public" have to say about "the media."
I have spent a lot of time in the lab. And I am continuously struck by how emotionally unpleasant it is when we as private individuals experience the public world of fakery — news, politics, culture and commerce. We yell at the television, pound at the keyboard and talk back to the radio. Kierkegaard, Boorstin and even generations of social critics after Boorstin may have been too early to spot some of what is going on now.
Most people I encounter consider themselves very self-aware about manipulations and phoniness in politics, marketing, advertising and pop culture. People know that advertising exploits women and that politicians spin.
Social theorists since Marx write as if history is guided by invisible forces acting on unwitting dupes. Well, we're a nation of witting dupes.
As consumers of culture and information as well as material goods, we spend an immense amount of time trying to cut through the crap, like Sisyphus eternally pushing the boulder up a steep hill. And it is almost impossible to overestimate how exhausting and frustrating this interminable project is.
Similarly, it is impossible to overestimate how constantly and thoroughly public, commercial and cultural toxins are injected into our lives by the syringes of new kinds of media.
The scientific revolution at the turn of the century that invented these communication technologies is historic. Simply put, the pure scale and amount of "media" is new in history — and thus we can't understand its effects deeply yet. Yes, many qualities of our human condition are ancient. Alienation is not new; the Internet is.
These thoughts sometimes add to my frustrations when I am called on to defend "the press," something I cannot do without reservation, of course.
The press is just one part, one syringe in our complicated "present age," an age of the super-sized image. But it happens to be one arena in which people at least get the ammunition to make up their own minds. That strikes me as a far less frustrating endeavor than constant cynicism and the vigilant, Sisyphean search for bias, slant and manipulation.
Boorstin, an incredibly generous and kindly thinker, had this advice for me and for all of us who try, with muddled success, to occasionally demystify our world: "…I remain confident that what dominates American experience today is not reality. If I can only dispel some of the mists, the reader may then better discover his own real perplexity. He may better see the landscape to find whatever road he chooses."
Choosing carefully, I think, is what is most important.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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